When you think about the Ohio State-Michigan State series, you think of hard-fought, physical, sometimes controversial games. It’s actually a little surprising that the Buckeyes lead the all-time series 27-13, and even more surprising that they hold a 13-5 advantage in East Lansing.
We tend to think back to losses at Spartan Stadium in 1972 and 1974, with the latter arguably still the most controversial finish in Big Ten football history. We think of that 1998 juggernaut losing at home in 1998. We’ll get more into those ’74 and ’98 games Friday night on our Buckeye Blitz special at 7pm.
Another remarkable statistic is that in the 40 all-time meetings, nine times either Ohio State (5-2) or Michigan State (2-0) has been ranked number one in the polls. That’s nearly 25% percent of the time, which is impressive.
The Lead Up
Of course, none of that has any bearing on Saturday’s match-up. The Buckeyes area ranked 14th, while the Spartans are 20th; yet this doesn’t have a feel of a titanic early conference season match-up. It has the feeling of two teams trying to avoid seeing the 2012 season go down like the Titanic.
OSU is undefeated, and the highest ranked Big Ten team, yet hasn’t been overly impressive in September. The Bucks have yet to play consistently, and have not yet put together four good quarters of football. While beating Central Florida, California and UAB by a combined 36 points, many felt those margins each should have been wider.
Michigan State, meanwhile, has already dropped a game 20-3 to Notre Dame at home, managing just 237 yards of offense. The Spartans gutted out a win over Boise State in the opener, but the Broncos aren’t at the BSU level we’ve become accustomed to the past 6-7 years. Furthermore, Sparty sputtered against Eastern Michigan, a lower-level MAC school, trailing into the second half before pulling out a 23-7 win last week.
The defense for MSU has been strong, however, and of the four units heading into the game, it’s the one that seemingly can be counted on.
Regardless of whatever level the Big Ten is or isn’t yet at, or what you think of the conference, this week marks a step up in play. These games matter, and if you’re not ready to play every week, you will lose. I’m interested to see how Ohio State responds to this, as the previous three games didn’t have any urgency or real build-up leading to the game, which is never a good excuse for not playing your best.
This begs the question that we’ll begin to get the answer to on Saturday. Just how good are these Buckeyes?
When Ohio State Has the Ball
While everyone, Ohio State players and coaches included, tries to figure out just what the Buckeyes are on offense, they will at least have a pretty good idea of what Michigan State’s defense will bring. One would expect a very similar game-plan as last year, when the Spartans sacked 9 OSU quarterbacks, and the Buckeyes managed just 178 yards of offense. Go back and re-read that last sentence for effect.
Braxton Miller, making just his second career start, struggled mightily, as he completed just 5 of 10 passes for 56yards, and wound up with negative 27 yards rushing on 9 carries. I can only imagine he’s excited to atone for last year’s performance when he was extremely green going up against gang Green.
He is clearly Ohio State’s top offensive option, and its best play-maker, that’s no secret, and Michigan State knows it. The Spartans will dare Miller to beat them through the air, and over-commit to stopping the run game; both from Miller and from the running backs.
It’s pretty cut and dried actually, to beat MSU and really anyone left on the schedule, the Buckeyes will have to be able to throw the ball effectively. If not, defenses can crowd the line of scrimmage and key on containment of Miller, and things will get much, much tougher. This isn’t new, however, we saw this quite often last season.
With that, the receivers will have to step up as well, and make catches on passes they get their hands on. Michigan State has two outstanding cornerbacks in Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard, and they’ll certainly have a say in the matter. Last week, Eastern Michigan was effective using the tight end over the middle of the field, something we haven’t seen much out of OSU, although that screams of an opportunity for Jake Stoneburner, regardless of whatever position he’s classified as.
One possible wrinkle will come with the return of Carlos Hyde. For the first time this season, both Hyde and Jordan Hall will be in the same backfield. How those two are utilized should be interesting, as Hyde is effective between the tackles, while the goal will be to get the ball to Hall in space. Going to the senior with short passes from the backfield might be an early way to try and get the offense going.
The Spartans front seven is probably the best in the Big Ten, and junior William Gholston is one player that must be accounted for on every snap.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
Not only are the Spartans without quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter, but they are still trying how to replace play-makers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin at the wide out position.
Reynoldsburg native (Groveport H.S.) Le’Veon Bell has been outstanding at running back, averaging over 150 yards a game, which is third in the country. That includesa pair of 200-yard plus performances, and while not especially fast, he’s a shifty runner that’s not afraid of contact. Given the problems tackling from the OSU defense, this will be quite a challenge.
Michigan State has really struggled throwing the ball, with junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell. The Spartans are 108th in the country in passing efficiency, although they are still managing 229 yards a game.
One would expect the Buckeye defense to be more aggressive, like what we saw against California a couple weeks ago. Just like Miller will be dared to beat the Spartan defense over the top, that’s the same challenge OSU will issue Maxwell. The Silver Bullets will sell out to stop Bell, and to get pressure on Maxwell.
The leading Spartan receiver is tight end Dion Sims, an imposing target at 6’5”, 285 pounds. Again, just like for the Buckeyes, the Michigan State receivers will be under pressure to not only get open to but catch passes.
To me the key factor is going to be who has success early, and can possibly gain momentum and confidence from it. For Ohio State’s sake, the Buckeyes hope it is them. Playing on the road, with a young team, might have too much trouble overcoming a lead. While OSU briefly trailed in the fourth quarter against Cal, it hasn’t otherwise been behind in the second half.
We’ve also seen the Buckeye offense at its best when it gains momentum and builds off success. If Ohio State can get to 20 points, that might be enough for a win.
Look for Michigan State to rely on its strengths; the defense, and the ground game featuring Le’Veon Bell. The Spartans will probably force the Bucks to prove it can stop the run. I don’t see the conservative Mark Dantonio trying to throw early to catch OSU off guard, but you never know.
I also think we’ll see some marked improvement from Ohio State this week. I’m sure the intensity will be turned up from the coaches and the seniors on this team. A division title is all that the Buckeyes can accomplish this season, and that march begins this week.
This game will come down to which offense is able to loosen the opposing defense by throwing the ball. If Miller is able to do that with any success, I think that bodes well for Ohio State. Miller is the best play-maker on either side of the ball.
The Buckeye defense has been mistake prone and still has a lot of question marks. I just don’t see Michigan State capitalizing enough. When the clock hits zero, I think it will say 24-14 Ohio State.
The coverage on 10TV and www.10tv.com/BuckeyeBlitz
will continue all weekend long. Friday night at 7pm we have a special, one-hour edition of Buckeye Blitz. Dom Tiberi will anchor, with guests Roy Hall, Champ Henson, Gary Berry and Justin Zwick joining him. Beau Bishop will be live in East Lansing.
Saturday, we’ll post game pictures and analysis on our Buckeye Blitz web page, and wrap-up the game with our new “Gameday” coverage at 7pm and 11pm, as well as Wall to Wall Sports at 11:35pm.